Ahead of his Caramoor debut, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard shares his connections to Messiaen, the challenges that come along with Catalogue d’oiseaux, and what he is looking forward to as he brings the piece to the Spanish Courtyard and Venetian Theater.
Congratulations on the great acclaim and many awards for the 2018 release of the complete Catalogue d’oiseaux. What appeals to you most about this multi-part composition? What do you consider the work’s greatest challenge to a pianist?
The challenge of the Catalogue d’oiseaux is to find the balance between being very exact and precise about Messiaen’s writing, but also to be inspired for giving life and poetry to these thirteen different situations. It’s a balance between objectivity and subjectivity. The objectivity is specifically the colors, rhythms, tempos, and everything that’s notated. The subjectivity is giving each rendition different atmosphere and light and forming big time arches that make the work in keeping with nature.
At Caramoor there will be concerts early morning, afternoon, and at night. What are your favorite times to perform and what are the unique challenges to each?
My favorite time is dawn, because anyway it’s my favorite time in daily life. You enter into the day where everything is still fresh, clear, and possible, and you can plan the day. My other favorite time is the night, because of the concentration that darkness brings and the mystery of night.
What is it about your own sensibility that seems to be so suitable for Messiaen’s music? Which bird songs do you love best?
What makes me close to Messiaen’s music is the material it’s composed from. It invites listening to the time and sounds of the world. It’s all about paying attention, having patience, and taking your time, about meditation and observation. These dimensions are very important for me. Of course, because you never know what will happen in nature, you don’t know what will come next. It’s music of the unexpected and of surprises. It opens your curiosity and tests your adaptability.
What I love about this work is the immense variety of bird sounds, songs, and acoustic production. They are not all “songs.” Some can just be a short outburst, and then all variations — an endlessly varied melody with an endless variety of timbres. There is all kind of discourse. The pieces have moments of incredibly changing sound and sound quality.
What do you do to prepare for Catalogue? Is it like a runner before a big marathon who must build up his endurance and follow a certain diet? What are your secrets: Lots of espresso or vitamins? Jogging or sleep?
Practice, practice, practice. You have to have very reliable fingers all the way through. If you play at different moments of the day your biorhythm cannot always be in its top form. When playing outdoors you can have problems of all kinds with temperature, wind, insects. You have to keep the contact with the quality of what your fingers produce. Playing at different moments of the day in different locations makes you much more vulnerable and you have to prepare yourself for that.
This is modernism at its best in that the listening experience is so immersive and provocative. Do you feel there is a growing audience for Catalogue?
Yes, definitely there is a growing audience for this music. The place of nature in the world has changed. Nature is in danger and it requires a different quality of attention which gives these hymns to nature a different meaning. Recently when I performed the Catalogue on the first spring day in Paris, with two bird specialists in attendance, the first thing the bird specialists said was that about this cycle was that one-third of the birds singing in this big cycle don’t sing anymore in our country (France). So of course a lot of people of are touched by this because of the situation in the world at the moment.
There are accounts of past performances when actual birds seem to join in the musical experience of Catalogue. Do you have specific memories of this?
In the open air the birds react. You know how easily it’s possible to sing and have dialogues with birds if you know how to imitate their songs, even if you don’t do it very well. In the case of the Catalogue they join and listen to this music. They are really listening to you and answering to you. They are creating antiphonies with the music.
The wish I have for Caramoor is that the birds respond with different songs. In Aldeburgh recently, there was one bird, a chaffinch, who sang the same pattern again and again, and I had a long piece, 20 minutes long! So I hope I for more variety from the birds at Caramoor than we heard in Aldeburgh.
Main image by Julia Wesely.